Nicola Simonetti, upon returning from Paris, recounts his experiences at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Whether it happens all the time or once in a blue moon, everybody has struggled to pick one novel out of all the books they wanted to buy. Who has not walked in a bookshop planning to get a copy of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and walked out holding Kerouac’s On The Road? I have always been fascinated by what affects a reader’s mind as she is taking the book to the checkout. Calvino described it in his best-known work If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.
“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you…And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid manoeuvre you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.”
It is hard to pinpoint all the variables that influence a reader’s choice to pick one book instead of another. A novel’s length, its cover, its drawings, and its genre can all influence such a decision, prose or poetry. Sometimes you pick a novel just because of the title, and then find out that its significance is limited to the first two chapters. A book can make you feel disappointed, relieved, excited, but it almost never leaves you apathetic. It is made to make you feel something, good or bad.
The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “A skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice”. Reading a book fits the aforementioned category: hence, reading is an art. You are taught to read when you are about six years old, and you improve that skill for a lifetime.
Having a favourite spot to read is inevitable. There are people who like reading in company, perhaps on the bus on their way to work. There are others who like sitting in a rocking chair enjoying the solitude. Personally, I do not believe those who say that you can read anywhere as long as you like what you are reading. The art of reading requires effort and focus. Although its process is hard to define, many factors need to fit into place to enjoy a book at its best.
Having said this, there is a place located in the heart of Paris where several kinds of art come together, and which has become my favourite reading spot ever since I first visited. Shakespeare and Company is a triumph of visual art and literary heritage. Established in 1951 by George Whitman, it boasts two floors crammed with shelves. The reading room on the top floor gives you access to a large amount of books from several countries, each in its original language. Following Whitman’s motto “be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” the bookshop opens its doors to all kinds of artists (named Tumbleweeds) who get free lodging if they agree to help out with clients during the day. A piano soothes your reading experience, while the narrow staircase leading upstairs helps to boost your self-esteem with quotes written on every step.
If enjoying a book is difficult in today’s surroundings, Shakespeare and Company is the surrounding where the art of reading is easy.The bookshop’s view of Notre Dame gives it a sense of austerity, while the owner’s cat is constantly slumbering in a corner. Assuming reading implies being able to enter a different dimension, the bookshop’s strong scent of old wood mixed with paper makes every tenacious reader feel at home. Although it is usually crowded, it is worth a visit — enjoying a Parisian sunset with a book on your lap is not something that happens every day!
There are still many curiosities about the reading and book selection process that have yet to be answered (should we suggest a scientific study on it?). Angela Carter once said that:
“Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”
I can say that there was something about that place on the right side of Notre Dame that has changed my approach to reading a book ever since. At the end of the day, who says that a good reading spot cannot be the key to the whole process?